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Xbox One X's 4K Red Dead Redemption looks sensational

UPDATE: The Undead Nightmare expansion tested on Microsoft's enhanced console

UPDATE 15/4/18 8:55am: Just how robust is the Xbox One X-enhanced version of Red Dead Redemption? Does the improved performance seen in the standard game also translate across to the more challenging Undead Nightmare DLC? This standalone episode retains the signature detail level of the original game but goes further, with a pervasive fog effect and a significantly increased zombie-fuelled NPC count. And on top of that, disposing of the undead with fire uses a visual effect that could cause some severe frame-rate drops in the original Xbox 360 game.

Well, we've put the expansion through the grinder and the good news is that the excellent performance level seen on the standard RDR translates entirely to the Undead Nightmare too. Remarkably, this means that the game outperforms the standard Xbox One back-compat game in taxing scenes, while comprehensively besting the frame-rates in equivalent scenes on original 360 hardware.

Aside from extremely rare frame-pacing issues, the emulator delivers a locked 30 frames per second - and all of the benefits seen in the standard game, including the 9x resolution boost and texture mip-mapping tweaks for the most extreme detail possible, are just as impressive here too. So with that in mind, if you're considering checking out the game, perhaps tracking down a GOTY physical copy with the expansion bundled might be the preferable way forward...

Joining our full Red Dead Redemption 4K breakdown on Xbox One X is this look at the Undead Nightmare DLC.

The headline news? Red Dead Redemption is now playable on Xbox One X at a true, native 4K. Ahead of the sequel's promised October 2018 release date, the Xbox 360 classic is added to a growing list of back-compat titles running on X hardware, enhanced at the emulator level to provide a full native 4K resolution - while retaining the original's pass of 2x MSAA. The fact that the game has finally broken free of its original 720p resolution limit is a big deal for another reason too - notoriously, Red Dead Redemption never received a PC release, meaning that this new Xbox One X-powered refresh is likely to be the best rendition of the game we'll ever get.

At its best, the enhancements offered by Xbox One X are revelatory. At 4K resolution, effects like the heat haze and light shafts stand out brilliantly as you walk down the Armadillo Town's streets. Even small interactions between NPCs are easier to pick out at a distance, and perhaps most strikingly, on a clear night, the bed of stars overhead looks pin-sharp - one of the clearest signs of that upgrade to 4K. As impressive as it is however, it's not quite on par with a full remaster. After all, the textures and HUD elements still rely on the original Xbox 360 assets. Even so, while there is a rigid, somewhat angular look to Rockstar's creation that hints at last-gen limits in poly count, this world still often holds up convincingly enough as a modern title.

Much like other back-compat games like Crackdown or Forza Horizon, Xbox One X's res bump only seems to flatter the original work, using negative LOD bias on textures to bring better quality mip-maps to the fore, beautifully matching the increased resolution. But are there any other enhancements - in shadows, LODs, or even effects? Could this offer up some of the prospective features from the PC version we never received, or is a jump to 4K the extent of it? Presumably many of these variables - shadows for example - could be tweaked at the emulator level (as they were in the X-enhanced Assassin's Creed), perhaps giving improved visual fidelity that better fits an ultra HD display. As it turns out though, Red Dead Redemption is emulated faithfully here; barring one extra, there are no augmentations.

That one bonus is the push to 16x anisotropic filtering, a great companion to the 9x resolution boost. In line with the majority of Xbox 360 games getting X support, boosting texture filtering quality is a relatively easy win. It has little impact on the GPU, and the obvious visual gain can be enforced at the emulator level, meaning no tweaks to game code. Again the core assets are the same, but our comparison gallery below shows that art presented at oblique angles goes from a blurry smudge on Xbox 360 to crisp and sharp on Xbox One X. It simply wouldn't have looked as good otherwise; the original 360 version ran with a restrictive mip-map sampling range - a point that sticks out even at its original 720p.

Our full 4K look at Red Dead Redemption on Xbox One X. Upgrades beyond resolution are limited for sure, but it's a beauty nonetheless.

That's the extent of the upgrades, by and large. Foliage density and LODs (which do improve in the X-enhanced version of Halo 3) stay the same as the original release. A PC-style upgrade with pushed-out settings is off the cards here; visually speaking this ticks the boxes with a 4K res boost and improved texture filtering - but the rest is left as-is. Shadow resolution, too, runs at the same level as Xbox 360, though in its defence, the quality here is still acceptable by today's standards. The package as a whole really speaks to the work Rockstar put into its RAGE engine during Red Dead Redemption's original development. As a follow-up of sorts to Grand Theft Auto 4, the game settled for a sparser, but more open terrain. Gone were the skyscrapers and streets packed with NPCs and cars - the pay-off being less distracting draw distances for geometry and lush foliage that helps it hold up today.

We've looked at the title running under back-compat on a regular Xbox One, where playback simulates the Xbox 360 version down to the pixel. Visuals are replicated precisely with no intent of an upgrade there, but performance improved significantly, where the game ran fully v-synced, removing the screen-tear evident in the original. The good news is that Xbox One X goes one better.

We're still looking at a 30 frames per second lock on the new system and any dream of pushing to 60fps is off the cards, as the Xbox 360 emulator simply doesn't work like that. It will only ever enforce the original game's performance cap. However, running through some of the biggest stress tests in the game's first few hours, you can expect a near-flawless execution of the code on X hardware. It's quite a remarkable achievement given that 9x boost in pixels, and even memory bandwidth-intensive effects don't cause an issue for the engine. There's a clear pecking order then - Xbox 360 performance isn't bad, but there can be tearing and hard locks down to 20fps in taxing cut-scenes. Xbox One improves matters significantly - tearing is gone and the lock is closer. However, in all of our test clips, the X provides the best lock to the target 30fps of them all.

Xbox One X
Xbox 360
This initial shot demonstrates the massive improvement in image quality the leap to 4K provides - power lines fully resolve with no sub-pixel break-up, higher quality textures are streamed in at closer range and texture filtering is enormously improved.
Xbox One X
Xbox One
Xbox 360
The water shader truly shines here on Xbox One X thanks to the boost in resolution. We've also included a standard Xbox One shot here to show that image quality is essentially identical to the original Xbox 360.
Xbox One X
Xbox 360
It's interesting to compare the assets across characters - John Marston benefits from improved textures while incidental players see a far more limited boost.
Xbox One X
Xbox 360
There are only limited gains to shadow quality owing to the enhanced resolution, but the improvements to texture work is vast - particularly in the far distance.
Xbox One X
Xbox 360
This shot demonstrates that tweaks to LOD bias have an especially impactful improvement for foliage elements - it's a key component of the game and Red Dead Redemption just looks so much better here on Xbox One X.
Xbox One X
Xbox 360
Draw distances on geometry remain the same, but the improvements to texture mip-map selection go a long, long way in this title.

There is one oddity, however - and it's something we've seen occasionally on other X-enhanced titles: the Xbox One X's 360 emulator has a small quirk in frame-pacing. Supposing the frame-rate drops by one frame on X hardware, what you'll usually see is a spike to 16ms shortly afterwards. Essentially, an extra rendered frame is introduced, as if to balance out the dropped one from a moment earlier, causing two consecutive unique frames in a row. It's highly uncommon in our experience, and more of a footnote to the performance review overall. This adds a little extra stutter every now and then that you wouldn't get on 360 or a base Xbox One. In general though? Frame-rates are undoubtedly smoother across the run of play on Microsoft's newest kit.

Overall then, Red Dead Redemption at 4K is a treat, and since there is little hope of a PC version of the game - or even a current-gen console remaster, this appears to be as good as it gets. As a free update for Xbox One X users, it's hard to complain. Sure, we'd love to see a 60fps rendition of Red Dead Redemption. And yes, we'd even relish the chance to see it rendering with a 4K texture pack, with other tweaks and changes in LODs, effects, lighting or shadows. What we have instead is a straight 4K delivery of a classic game - which still manages to look impressive eight years on. The improved frame-rate, tweaked mip-maps and best-in-class performance also means that the X supplants the standard Xbox One as the definitive way to play the game

As things stand, Red Dead Redemption is possibly the biggest game to hit Xbox One X's back-compat library so far. As a warm-up to the sequel later this year, it's also a real feather in the Microsoft's cap - the perfect way to refresh your memory ahead of that release. There is a massive 'what if' hanging over Rockstar's other, older games now though, with X support working so handsomely in this case. We'd love to see Grand Theft Auto 4 revived in a similar way, and even the lesser-known - but quite brilliant - Table Tennis would also be a welcome addition to the line-up of X-enhanced titles. The jump to 4K along with performance improvements makes old games feel fresh again, and we feel that the Rockstar library still has more to offer.

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About the Author
Thomas Morgan avatar

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.

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